CINCINNATI – A special prosecutor will determine whether to charge a 911 caller who reported a man waving a gun in an Ohio Wal-Mart before police fatally shot the shopper, who’d picked up an air rifle from a shelf.
Whether the caller is charged with making a false alarm will be up to the same prosecutor who presented the case to a grand jury, which concluded the shooting of 22-year-old John Crawford III was justified.
Crawford, who was black, was shot by a white officer responding to the Beavercreek store, near Dayton, on Aug. 5, 2014. The U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing the case.
A group of people who took interest in the shooting used an obscure law to push for prosecution of 911 caller Ronald Ritchie, who told investigators he thought the firearm was real.
The law allows private citizens to make complaints and have them reviewed by a judge who can refer them to a prosecutor for further review. The group submitted surveillance video synchronized to the call audio, along with sworn statements accusing Ritchie of crimes including making false alarms.
A Fairborn Municipal Court judge recently ruled there was sufficient evidence to prosecute him only for that misdemeanour and referred the case to the Fairborn city solicitor, who prosecutes for the city of Beavercreek and sought a special prosecutor to handle the matter.
The Hamilton County prosecutor’s office confirmed Thursday that chief assistant prosecutor Mark Piepmeier was appointed to the role. The office said Piepmeier, who has handled some of Ohio’s biggest cases including a deadly 1993 prison riot and cases involving excessive force by police, wouldn’t comment.
Residents who sought Ritchie’s prosecution called the choice of a special prosecutor disappointing and disheartening and noted that after the grand jury considered the case, Piepmeier publicly described the 911 caller as someone who was “trying to be a good citizen.”
“That kind of says to me that he believes that if you make a phone call that starts the wheels speeding toward the death of an innocent person, especially a black man, you’re being a good citizen. … Of all the prosecutors in the state, why pick this guy again?” said one of the activists, Yellow Springs resident Bomani Moyenda.
Ritchie was the only person to call 911 before shots were fired at the store. He reported a man walking around waving an apparent rifle and “pointing it at people.” The next day, the Riverside man told authorities the man actually didn’t point the firearm but swung it around and flashed the muzzle at children.
Calls to Ohio and Florida phone numbers currently associated with Ritchie’s name have gone unanswered.
Legal experts say it would be difficult to prove Ritchie knew the information he was calling in was false.
Police said they believed Crawford had a real weapon and said he didn’t respond to commands to put it down — something the soundless video can’t corroborate. But Crawford’s relatives, who filed a lawsuit, have argued he posed no threat and was shot before he had a chance to react.
Franko reported from Columbus.